In the past few decades, Christopher Nolan has slowly but surely cemented himself as one of the most influential directors of his generation. While he originally began with smaller and intimate independent films, he has since become one of the leading defenders of cinema. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, he was adamant about showing his then-upcoming film Tenet in theaters because, like all of his movies, it needed to be seen in theaters on a big screen. Preferably in IMAX as well since he loves that too. Because of that, ranking all of the Christopher Nolan movies can be a tough task.
Since he began making films in the ’90s, Christopher Nolan has developed a wide library of films, several of which can be called all-time classics and masterpieces within their craft. While I would argue that Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a bad movie (yet), some of his filmography is definitely not as illustrious as one would think. So let’s examine the director’s library and determine which of his movies are deserving of lofty praise and which movies are more the product of hubris.
Ranking All of the Christopher Nolan Movies
While Tenet was the fifth highest-grossing movie globally in 2020, it was still a financial failure due to COVID, but that’s frankly the least of its problems. The film is borderline nonsensical with characters openly telling one another not to think about the weird scientific concepts Nolan throws at them too much. It was a movie that had good moments, like with the reverse action scenes leading to some magnificent trailers, but when you actually saw the movie, those few scenes were all it really had going for it. The plot was underdeveloped, and the cast seemed to be sleepwalking for most of the movie, continuing a trend of Christopher Nolan in that he rarely is able to convey intimacy well. But the worst part about the film is just that it’s boring. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, it’s a film that should have more to say and more to show off, but instead, it will just leave viewers puzzled and frustrated. Just watch the trailers.
Insomnia is a weird film in Christopher Nolan’s library solely because he did not actually write it. The film was written by Hillary Seitz and is actually based on a Norwegian film about a murder investigation that becomes more complicated, so in many ways, this isn’t really a tried-and-true Christopher Nolan movie. It’s more like a film that just has his name attached to it. The film is elevated by some wonderful performances by Al Pacino and the late Robin Williams, but coming right after the wonderful Memento, it’s hard not to think of the film as somewhat of a disappointment. On its own, it’s still fun and I do enjoy the psychological thriller elements that pervade the film, but it’s just okay in many ways that are unremarkable.
I like the idea of Following more than I actually like the film itself, which is about a man following people around ostensibly for novel inspiration but ultimately becoming embroiled in crime. The film barely clocks in at 70 minutes, and compared to the rest of his filmography, most of what Following attempts to do is expanded upon more fully in later Christopher Nolan films. However, I am fascinated by the production of this film and how Christopher Nolan was able to do it on a budget reportedly well under $10,000. This was an act of labor and love for Nolan, doing virtually everything for the film, including using his own salary to help fund production. When I hear about how Christopher Nolan loves film from the bottom of his heart, I think of what he did to create this film more than his recent offerings. Following may not be his greatest achievement, but it’s the one that has the most soul in it, for whatever that’s worth.
Christopher Nolan does not really understand how to convey intimacy or vulnerability. Nolan works well at engaging audiences’ minds and making them think, but not really when it comes to tugging at their heartstrings or having them emote with his characters. Interstellar is his best attempt at trying to make audiences sympathize with its main character, played by Matthew McConaughey, and his plight to get back home to his family. Outside of that, Nolan’s chops at creating grand spectacles are on full display here, with several sequences that are very technically impressive to behold to this day. I just wish that it wouldn’t try to spin too many plates at once, juggling scientific concepts with its emotional core and the entire plotline about saving humanity from extinction. It’s a bit too busy at times, but those few good moments and the sheer grand scale of it all make Interstellar worth a watch.
8. The Dark Knight Rises
Coming after The Dark Knight, there was a lot of hype and anticipation surrounding the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It has the gravity and the stakes that one would expect from a climactic conclusion to a trilogy, but I feel that the film was always on its back foot due to its status as “the one after The Dark Knight.” With that being said, while this is by no means a bad movie, The Dark Knight Rises is easily the weakest of Nolan’s Batman films.
When compared to the other movies in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises lacks a strong identity and instead meanders around all over the place trying to tell a story that didn’t need to go on for as long as it did. I appreciate the fact that it actually offered a definitive conclusion for Christian Bale’s Batman and gave several characters the proper send-off they deserve, and the big action set pieces are still able to deliver, like the explosion at the stadium and the hand-to-hand fight scenes with Tom Hardy’s Bane. It feels like it has fewer original elements to offer after the first two films though. I still enjoy The Dark Knight Rises on many levels and it’s a great action blockbuster, but that should speak to the quality of the rest of these films that great isn’t good enough.
7. The Prestige
Putting The Prestige this high in a Christopher Nolan movies ranking may be controversial (unless you’re Darren, in which case it’s ranked much too low), but I’m a sucker for so many things in this movie. I love films about magic, and I love all of the layers of trickery present in the film. The Prestige is a roller coaster ride where two rival magicians try to outsmart and one-up each other, creating genuine tension between the incredibly talented Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. It’s a film that always keeps you guessing, and I love being able to show it off to people and see them try to parse out what’s happening and how the tricks are being done. I adore the hatred that these two men have for each other, making this easily one of Nolan’s most entertaining viewings on your first time through. Future screenings may dampen the appeal once you realize what’s going on, but that has no bearing on how strong the performances are.
Dunkirk is a straightforward yet restrained story. The film centers itself on how British soldiers need to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II before the Germans storm the beach and kill everyone present. From there, the film is set from three different perspectives as we see soldiers, pilots, and even civilians do what they can to save everyone. The fact that all three of these perspectives take place at different times, slowly converging to one singular point, may be unnecessary at times, but the culmination is worth the wait. Outside of that, the technical elements, like the sound mixing and sound design, are top-notch, and the tension is palpable as soldiers are effectively waiting to die, uncertain if they’ll be able to make it home. It’s a basic movie, but much like with 1917, its simplicity allows for a greater sense of dread as we wait for something, anything, to go wrong. Dunkirk is a wonderful movie that doesn’t attempt to do much outside of its one goal, but man does it succeed at what it does.
5. Batman Begins
I was too young to see Batman Begins when it was in theaters, but I struggle to think of what exactly it was like in the lead-up to the film. Here we had a director who had never done a major action blockbuster before, stepping into the shadows of one of the biggest superheroes in the world and following up on what many consider to be one of the worst superhero movies ever made, Batman & Robin. And now, we look back on Batman Begins being one of the best superhero origin stories of all time. Go figure!
Batman Begins could be accused of being too slow at times, but the film takes its time to establish its characters, the crime-ridden Gotham City, and the fear that Batman is able to inspire in the criminals of Gotham. Christian Bale’s Batman defined an era and is still considered by many to be the best Batman. The film flounders a bit with its antagonists, giving itself three of them who feel like they’re competing against each other for screen time, but its strong central character does a lot to tie everything together. Frank Miller may have made the definitive Batman origin story with Batman: Year One, but Batman Begins is just better to me.
Tenet feels like a pale imitation of what Inception tried to do. While Tenet had grand concepts that were poorly explained, Inception‘s dream landscapes are all easily digestible and the film helps to explain them as things progress so the viewer is never out of the loop. I like the fact that, for all of the grand discussions on ideas, dreams versus reality, and grief present throughout the film, Inception is ultimately a heist movie with enough creativity to spare. Over a decade later, the film still holds up and was able to keep me paying attention and actively following everything that was happening. It’s rare that we get original blockbusters like this, but Inception delivered on every front. Plus, when a movie’s ending is still being discussed to this day, you know you did something right when making it.
For all of his grandiosity and adoration of big projects, Memento stands out for just how simple it is. Its plot is anything but simple in presentation, following a character with anterograde amnesia trying to track down his wife’s killer, but the small cast, confined setting, and unique structure that plays the events of the film in reverse always kept me wondering how everything fits together. When you do eventually figure out what’s happening and the film’s lingering questions are answered, you’ll want to rewatch the entire film one more time just to see all of the details that you didn’t quite notice before. If Christopher Nolan stopped making grand IMAX events and instead went back to making films like Memento, I wouldn’t be disappointed in the slightest.
2. The Dark Knight
To many, The Dark Knight is the best comic book movie of all time. Even now, looking back on its original release in 2008, it’s hard to argue against that claim. Even if you never saw Batman Begins, The Dark Knight is an easy-to-follow and easy-to-understand action movie that isn’t afraid to be dark. And it gets dark, mostly thanks to the Oscar-winning performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. From the production to the screenplay to the performance to the themes of morality and duality, there’s very little actually to criticize about the film. Nearly everything it does is done expertly, and it’s a stunning achievement to this day. Every Batman movie is going to be living in the shadow of this film, and it will probably be that way for a very, very long time.
To say that Oppenheimer is better than The Dark Knight is a bold claim, but it’s one that I stand by simply because of how captivating Oppenheimer is. The gargantuan cast is fantastic, with praise especially for Robert Downey Jr. and his depiction of Lewis Strauss, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Everything in Oppenheimer is immaculately constructed, and it all builds on each other in some way, shape, or form. Every scene feels essential, and while the film can be a bit too busy when it begins, it eventually narrows its focus and leaves you with the most gripping cinematic experience that Christopher Nolan has ever created. It’s a panic attack of a movie, from the build-up to the detonation of the atomic bomb to a simple hearing in a small office. With an ending that will haunt you even after you leave the theater, it’s hard not to consider Oppenheimer to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus and the best film he has ever made.
And that is our ranking of all of the Christopher Nolan movies!